Most of us realize that spending time in nature is good for mind and spirit. A new study by researchers at Stanford University more or less confirms it, according to a paper published in last month’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled “Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation.”
Honestly, I was confused by the title. I always thought nature enhanced rumination or contemplation. But I didn’t know that in psychology, rumination means to focus excessively on one’s problems and to brood on why you might be depressed. So, nature reducing rumination is a positive.
The researchers say their study “reveals a pathway by which nature experience may improve mental well-being and suggests that accessible natural areas within urban contexts may be a critical resource for mental health in our rapidly urbanizing world.”
Evidently, walking in natural areas simulates activity in a section of the brain that’s known as the subgenual prefrontal cortex, which is connected to negative mental conditions and a negative pattern of thought the paper calls “morbid rumination.” They sent study participants to various areas on the Stanford campus and when the participants returned, the researchers scanned their brains. The result: “Participants who went on a 90-min walk through a natural environment reported lower levels of rumination and showed reduced neural activity in an area of the brain linked to risk for mental illness compared with those who walked through an urban environment.”
In other words, walking in nature is good for mind and spirit, and walking in urban areas is not so good. As I suggested at the top, this only confirms what most people already know.
I have written a great deal about how the sages and poets of the East found nature to be beneficial in this way. Naturally, they are not the only ones.
Two prominent naturalists from America’s past, Henry Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, had connections to Eastern philosophy but their appreciation of nature was firmly in place long before they became interested in the teachings of Buddha and Lao Tzu.
Thoreau’s name is practically synonymous with Walden Pond, a lake in Concord, Massachusetts formed by glaciers some 10,000–12,000 years ago. The place itself is famously associated with Naturalism. Emerson also wandered around Walden, and in 1846 he bought a wood-lot there, consisting of “more than forty acres, on the border of a little lake a half a mile wide and more, called Walden Pond,” as he wrote in a letter to his friend, Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish philosopher.
In his 1836 essay, Nature, Emerson complained that far too many people do not recognize the full worth and beauty of nature. In the essay, Emerson also set down some of the fundamentals of Transcendentalism, the philosophical movement linked to both Emerson and Thoreau. In another essay, The Transcendentalist, Emerson wrote a phrase I like: “Nature is Transcendental.”
Emerson’s view of nature differed a bit from the Eastern view. He saw nature as something outside the life of the individual, “all that is separate from us . . . the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body.” The Buddhist/Taoist concept of “Not me” goes further and nature is viewed as profoundly inter-connected with inner life.
Nature is transcendental (note the small ‘t’). And, when we use any of the forms of the word “transcendent,” we do not necessarily mean metaphysical. Transcendent can mean beyond the limits of ordinary experience, what cannot be expressed in words, or realization that “goes beyond,” which in Buddhism refers to Prajna-Paramita or Transcendental Wisdom.
I would suggest transcendental can also be “going back,” in that it we can recapture a quality of childhood, the innocence, the sense of wonder, the “original mind” we had before our brains became cluttered with all the disorderly and tangled notions we’ve acquired as adults. I think others have commented on the same child-like orientation connected with spirituality, and judging by this passage from Nature, Emerson would seem to have been one of them.
To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Note Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood.”